Secretive Kansas Starts to Open Up

After the Kansas City Star revealed a deep culture of secrecy in the state’s government, politicians have started to address the lack of transparency.

Kansas New Governor Policy
Gov. Jeff Colyer
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
It would be hard to find an American government more secretive than the one in Kansas. More than 90 percent of the bills that become law are introduced by anonymous sponsors, while administrative agencies, as a matter of policy, block many records from examination by the public or even lawmakers.

Kansas is one of only four states that don’t require public notice of regular public meetings. It’s also one of two, along with Arkansas, that don’t require minutes to be kept at those meetings. Legislators aren’t required to have their votes recorded at the committee level, where much of the action takes place. The practice of “gut and go” -- subbing out the entire text of a bill at the last minute -- has long been common. What started out as a transportation bill, say, may suddenly be about abortion. And no one outside the committee or leadership has any idea why it happened.

Lots of other information is shielded. The value of tax breaks given to businesses is not disclosed, even to lawmakers. Police departments can withhold information from the public about officer-involved shootings, including video footage. When children overseen by the Department of Children and Families are abused, the agency may hide its involvement, even shredding relevant notes. “My sense is that some of these practices were just taken for granted,” says Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

That’s no longer the case. The culture of secrecy in the state, which extends to local governments as well, was exposed in a series of articles last fall in the Kansas City Star. The issue has been drawing attention in the state Capitol ever since. The House has cracked down on anonymous bills, while the Senate is working on increased disclosure requirements for lobbyists.

Just days after taking office earlier this year -- replacing outgoing Gov. Sam Brownback, who was appointed ambassador at large for international religious freedom -- Gov. Jeff Colyer signed a series of executive orders meant to make the state government and its workings less secretive. The governor directed cabinet agencies to come up with metrics for measuring transparency, and he also imposed some specific requirements that include making the agencies provide more free copies of open records and creating a website to list all open executive branch meetings. 

Even if the rules are rewritten, longstanding habits of nondisclosure will not disappear immediately. But it’s now a topic state leaders cannot avoid. “It’s turned into an election year issue,” says Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. “It helps that gubernatorial candidates from both parties are endorsing these ideas.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing senior staff writer. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.